"Deep in my heart, I longed for the lie to continue. Alas, it did not. After three days full of lies, the truth hit us like lightning. Suddenly, we found ourselves facing a horrendous crime. The painful truth was not just losing our loved ones; they were victims of an unparalleled crime. Our own forces had shot down the doomed flight Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. We felt as if the plane crashed again, killing all 176 onboard. For us, the aircraft crashed time and again, and the news and comments about the tragedy forced us to experience that ominous day, January 8, repeatedly."
On that day, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps targeted a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane outside Tehran and downed it with two missiles, says Paniz Gorji, the sister of one of the victims of the deadly crash, Pooneh Gorji.
Exclusively speaking to Radio Farda, for the first time, Paniz Gorji expanded on her family's anger, disbelief, and the pressure that Iran's intelligence agents exerted on them during the past year.
The Gorji family lost a daughter, Pouneh, and their son-in-law, Arash Pourzarrabi, in the disaster over Tehran.
Pouneh and Arash were married only a week before that gloomy day when the UAI's three-year-old Boeing crashed outside the Iranian capital city.
The Bonyad Shahid (Martyrs Foundation) representatives repeatedly visited our house to lure my mother into joining the foundation.
"Besides anger and disbelief, and wondering what had happened, it was excruciating to see the authorities' superficial condolences and attempts to pull us on their side, and somehow extract forced forgiveness. During the past year, the victims' families went through a painful period that I hope no one else would ever experience," Paniz tells Radio Farda.
Iran's decision to present the UIA Flight 752's victims as "martyrs" still pains the deceased's families.
"As soon as the Islamic Republic authorities labeled our loved ones as martyrs, we rejected the labeling," Paniz said, adding, "Our loved ones were not martyrs. Then they offered superficial condolences to force relief on us. They wanted to appease us without revealing what had really happened or who was responsible for the crime. The Bonyad Shahid (Martyrs Foundation) representatives repeatedly visited our house to lure my mother into joining the foundation. We categorically rejected their offer. Our problem is not being a member of this or that state-run institute. We (victims' families) have our own Association. Moreover, consolation is meaningless when one murders others."
The pressures to somehow appease the victims' survivors peaked on the eve of the tragedy's anniversary. "They repeatedly telephoned and knocked on our door. My mother never opened the door. They have telephoned us many times, and both my mother and father have asked them not to call anymore. They are doing their best to extract some appeasement. So far, they have failed to pull any of the victims' families to their side.
According to Paniz, the victims' families are still unsatisfied with Iran's account of the plane's downing. "At least for my parents and me, losing a sister or a daughter is no longer a personal issue. One hundred seventy-six people and a baby in her mother's womb perished in the tragedy. Killing 177 people cannot be a personal issue. As they have said, it was a 'systematic mistake.' Therefore, they should expand on that. No one has believed their official report on the tragedy. Their account was an amalgam of contradictory and ludicrous arguments. Nobody yet knows whether the downing of the passenger plane was deliberate and pre-planned or not. None of the aspects of the tragedy has specifically been cleared."
"For a petty crime, the Islamic Republic's judiciary holds a trial. If an underage person kills somebody in a fight, the authorities keep him behind bars, and as soon as he is eighteen, they hang him. Nonetheless, 176 people were killed, and nothing has happened."
"We do not want to receive compensation," she continued. "We want to know what happened. We want to know what precisely happened. We do not believe in any of the government's reports and comments. The problem is the fact that a murderer is in charge of investigating his crime. Our judicial system is not at all independent. We cannot trust it. Meanwhile, not even a symbolic court has been held so far. All they have done is limited to attempts to appease us and (offering) money."
On the eve of the plane crash's anniversary, the Iranian government announced that it would compensate each victim's survivors with $150,000.
"The offer has not satisfied the victims' families because we do not want it," Paniz said, adding, "The offer will not bring back our lost children. Our loved ones will not return. One of our most important demands is to find the truth because we do not want this to happen to anyone else. It was a crime and an unprecedented one in the entire world. Yet, the authorities are still trying to sweep everything under the carpet. The tragedy is even beyond the victims' families. Those responsible for the tragedy must be accountable to all Iranians for their wrongdoing. They should tell us the truth."
Paniz thought back to January 7, 2020, the night before the disaster. It was an ordinary night for her, to the extent that she did not even go to the airport to escort her sister. Pooneh had repeatedly gone to Iran and returned, and everything seemed normal.
"I did not bother to hear the news at all that night. It was about 7 or 8 in the morning when I woke up to my mother and aunt's wailing. I only heard that a plane had crashed. I could not believe it, since a plane crash, in itself, is a serious matter. The
"My family and I are somehow forced to continue our lives."
fact that Pooneh and Arash were also on that plane was another matter. I was stunned, wondering what had happened. The plane crashed, I said to myself, 'Now Arash and Pooneh return. They will leave tomorrow.' I really could not believe that our children were gone forever. My mind did not allow me to analyze and understand the tragedy."
"A number of our neighbors had come to comfort us, saying that it could be another flight. In a situation like that, one tends to believe in such assurances and such 'good news.' But, on that gloomy day, there was only one flight leaving Tehran airport. Flight 757, and our Arash and Pooneh were on it. I cannot remember everything anymore. Then, unrest and confusion emerged that will never end."
"My family and I are somehow forced to continue our lives. Many people think that we just lost our loved ones, but many new dimensions are added to the case when someone falls victim to a crime. Every day, along with our intense nostalgic yearning for Pooneh and Arash, we should also repeatedly ask ourselves, 'Why?' Why did it happen?' We are still suffering from the pain, sadness, disbelief, and anger we experienced in the first three days after the tragedy. And besides the sorrow that persists, there is a wave of anger with which we wake up every day. We ask ourselves why? Why did this happen? And all of us hope to achieve justice. This is what has kept us alive, hoping to achieve justice."
Paniz recounted her sister's personal items that were never returned to her family.
"The authorities handed over none of Pooneh's personal belongings. We were after her laptop and cellphone. It is not the question of their price. The point is that we need such objects to help us carry on our lives. We need our loved ones' memories and photos to survive. But they (authorities) even withheld Pooneh's laptop and cellphone from us. I was very keen to get her computer and cellphone because these two objects are essential to me. We could somehow retrieve her photos. But they denied us that. They only handed over her ring, that's all."
Paniz referred to the award-winning Iranian mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani, as her sister's role model. "Pooneh could only live for 25 years. I am sure if she had the opportunity to live, she could induce more love into the people and positively impact their lives. I hope that other Poonehs and Arashes will have a different fate. I hope that no family will ever lose its loved ones in such a tragic way. I also hope that all the people of the world will ever lose intelligent, cultured, and influential human beings in such a manner."